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    Uncle Vanya

    Crying "Uncle"

    Sam Mendes breathes new life into an old classic, Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya," with a stellar cast led by Emily Watson and Simon Russell Beale.


    Director Sam Mendes of "American Beauty" fame has the extraordinary ability to assemble a dream cast again and again, on stage and on film. He's certainly done it in his denouement with the Donmar Warehouse — "Uncle Vanya" in rep with "Twelfth Night" — now at BAM through March 9th.

    Written by: Anton Chekhov.
    Translated by Brian Friel.
    Directed by: Sam Mendes.
    Cast: David Bradley, Selina Cadell, Luke Jardine, Paul Jesson, Helen McCrory, Cherry Morris, Anthony O'Donnell, Gary Powell, Simon Russell Beale, Gyuri Sárossy, Mark Strong, and Emily Watson.

    Related links: Official site
    Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM)
    30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn
    Jan. 10 - March 9, 2003

    Live music (by George Stiles), patchwork carpets, the requisite samovar and rustling wheat in the background — Anthony Ward's gorgeous set is evocative and stark, allowing the actors to move restlessly about even as they are hemmed in by their financial and emotional limitations. The Chekhovian existential angst is immediately apparent as Doctor Astrov (Michael Strong) paces the room containing the longest table I've ever seen. Brian Friel's new translation is an easy, almost colloquial approach to the often stilted verbiage of past attempts. My only wish was that he'd found a way to rid the script of the soliloquies that are so out of place in such a modern adaptation.

    Still, we are in turn-of-the-century Russia, as Mark Thompson's spot-on costuming, highlighting the difference between country and city life, and Paul Arditti's sounds of sleigh bells remind us. The country estate, once a beehive of activity buzzing to support the livelihood of Professor Serebryakov (David Bradley), now languishes. The arrival of said Professor with his stunning trophy wife, Yelena (Helen McCrory) has forced the local male population to give up their daily routines to admire her. I exaggerate. Only three men are in "love" with Yelena, if we assume her husband is in love with her. The two other self-proclaimed lovers are Uncle Vanya (Simon Russell Beale) and our country doctor, now a daily visitor to the estate. Sonya (Emily Watson) overlaps and complicates the triangles, as she pines away for the good doctor.

    The agitated boredom running rampant throughout Sonya's household is not for lack of things to do. Yet the trauma of unrequited love, a seeming side-effect of their boredom, takes tons of energy, leaving little for chores like paying the bills or seeing one's patients. The end result is that everyone, as Yelena puts it in her sexy, throaty voice, suffers total "immersion in self-contempt." That can't feel good.

    Most of us have felt like Yelena at one time or another, worshipped by worthless suitors while yearning for something we cannot have. In a country and time devoid of psychotherapists, self-help groups and the Internet, the lovelorn have nothing in this earthly world to look forward to, so they settle for hope of reward in the next.

    There is not much subtlety in Mendes' production, and I really appreciated the bolder choices. Astrov's attempt to seduce Yelena over his maps was masked by nothing but his words, as he makes every attempt to physically engulf her body. Uncle Vanya grovels on his knees, screams for attention before he remarks, "I don't feel very well."

    The performances are stellar across the boards. Simon Russell Beale returns to BAM as Vanya after his impressive performance as Hamlet last year. He finds comedy in the dreariest of places, which make us pity him all the more. Emily Watson's Sonya is simple, direct. I look forward to her leading the ensemble as Viola in "Twelfth Night," a meaty role for any actress, and especially exciting considering the chops of this RSC veteran. McCrory and Strong were the thrilling cast surprises, as their résumés don't include much on this side of the pond. We Americans have, for the most part, been denied their theatrical talents till now. Strong's brooding Astrov is intense, winsome, magnetic. McCrory's Yelena is able to do what Laura Linney couldn't quite pull off on Broadway a couple of years ago. McCrory is engaging in her languor, sympathetic in her frustrations and humorous in her snobbery. She's also pretty hot.

    Mr. Mendes points up the universal human condition that draws us back to Chekhov's plays year after year. He lets the characters be more important than any design concept. I'm going to book my seat now for his upcoming Broadway production of "Gypsy," and I doubt I'll ever miss a single Mendes movie. Watch this spot for the exciting conclusion of this two-parter with the review of "Twelfth Night."

    FEBRUARY 3, 2003

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